Neo-Fascists hope for poll boost

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The number of Italian neo-Fascists and associates in the European parliament is likely to jump from four to 10 or 12 in the elections on Sunday.

Polls indicate that the alarm abroad at the five members of the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance in the government has not diminished the support gained in the general elections in March and the AN stands to poll more than 13 per cent of the vote. This could give them around 10 members.

The neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, which is the dominant party within the recently formed AN, had four members in the last European parliament. They shunned the parliament's right-wingers, led by the French extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, with whom they say they have little in common, and joined the miscellaneous group N I - non-inscrits.

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's party Forza Italia is also likely to do well again. He is seeking to make the elections a popularity test for his government. 'The problem is this: to decide whether Italians like being governed by this government,' he told members of the passionately pro-Berlusconi Italian Housewives' Federation yesterday.

Since he has been in office less than a month and not had time to upset large sections of the population, and since, like last time, he is spending far more money and taking up far more television time than all the rest, he stands to get a robust 'yes' in reply.

Forza Italia's budget for the campaign is 7.8bn lire - more than pounds 3m - 15 times as much as that of the next biggest party, the former Communist PDS and very much more than the other political groupings whose meagre resources were exhausted in the general elections. Mr Berlusconi's channels are again churning out campaign spots for him, and Forza Italia, which won 21 per cent in March, could increase its share to around 25 per cent, polls suggest.

Italians might be forgiven for thinking that Mr Berlusconi is running for the parliament himself, since his name tops the Forza Italia lists all over the country. He has no intention of taking up a seat in Strasbourg but his supporters explain that they need a well- known personality to head the list since, because they are such a new movement, their candidates are even less well-known than those of other parties. Opponents protest that Mr Berlusconi is grossly out of order, but have got nowhere.

Most Italians could not really care anyway. Still weary from the general elections, they are unable to work up much enthusiasm for these, the European parliament seeming as far away and unfathomable here as in most other places. A poor turn-out is feared: according to one prediction it is likely to fall from 89 per cent in the last European elections to around 70 per cent - a figure that countries like Britain can only dream of, but by Italian standards disgracefully low.

The vote - to be held under the old proportional system which has been abolished for national parliament - is of burning interest however to the political parties, settling internal disputes and acting as a pointer to the future. It should show whether Mr Berlusconi is continuing to lure votes away from the Northern League, which is proving a troublesome member of his coalition. On the Left, which is in the process of soul-searching after its defeat in March, losses would spell more clearly the end of the road for Achille Occhetto, the PDS leader, who many already want to replace.

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